In last Sunday’s class (October 28) we began discussing the second of MC USA’s renewed commitments: specifically, “We are called to extend God’s holistic peace, proclaiming Christ’s redemption for the world with our lives. Through Christ, God frees the world from sin and offers reconciliation. We bear witness to this gift of peace by rejecting violence and resisting injustice in all forms, and in all places.”
This statement sounds unique and (unfortunately) minoritarian among historic Christian statements, creeds, doctrines and teachings, but only after a certain point in time, after the church went “mainstream” in the time of Constantine. Previously, it was widely understood that Christians would not participate in warfare. Soldiers in the Roman Empire who did convert to Christian faith, while not able to leave under C/O status, usually sought noncombatant positions, even if it meant demotion to penal battalions. The logical implications of the Gospel against war were never entirely lost in the church. For example, Francis of Assisi went with several of his Brothers Minor to the Holy Land to try and put a stop to the Crusades. He seems to have gotten a more sympathetic hearing (if not agreement and obedience) from the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, who allowed Francis and his brothers to visit the holy sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, barefoot and unarmed, which the Crusaders were unable to get to by force of arms.
The Anabaptist movement of the 16th C. (that part which survived, at least, while also suffering the most persecution) also reclaimed the peace teachings of Christ and the Apostles and applied them against participation in warfare. As Conrad Grebel wrote to Thomas Muntzer, a violent peasant revolutionary leader who would claim the title, “Anabaptist:” “…the gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves, which, as we learn from our brother, is thy opinion and practice. True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter; they must be baptized in anguish and affliction, tribulation, persecution, suffering, and death they must be tried with fire, and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest, not by killing their bodily, but by mortifying their spiritual, enemies. Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them—unless, indeed, we would still be off the old law….”
We heard also the words of Menno Simons: “We teach and acknowledge no other sword, nor tumult in the kingdom or church of Christ than the sharp sword of the Spirit, God’s Word, as has been made quite plain in this and our other writings: a sword which is sharper and more penetrating than any sword, two-edged, and proceeding from the mouth of the Lord…But the civil sword we leave to those to whom it is committed. Let everyone be careful lest he transgress in the matter of the sword, lest he perish with sword…”
Zion Mennonite Church, in its early years suffered for this stance, such as during the First World War and the attendant anti-German hysteria, when the first sanctuary got striped with yellow paint (or yellow ribbon) for alleged “cowardice,” and its pastor, Ed Yoder, was sought by an angry lynch mob.
We discussed how this current statement about peace was similar to, yet different from, previous Mennonite/Anabaptist positions and statements against war. It calls us to be for something, or someone, rather than simply against it or them. We are called to be for “God’s holistic peace,” to be “proclaiming Christ’s redemption,” yes, with our words, but also “with our lives.” That word, “holistic” stuck out to us, as it brings in meanings like, “whole-orbed, all-encompassing, in reference to the big picture, inter-connected, with God, spiritual as well as local, political, etc.” This difference, from simply being against war, to being for a more full-orbed, all-encompassing, holistic peace, and living for it now, and not just in times of war, emerged over the decades since World War 2, as Mennonites participated in voluntary service options as conscientious objectors in places and kinds of service away from their isolated and rural home areas. These settings included post-war Europe, hospitals and asylums for mentally ill and developmentally disabled patients, and impoverished countries in the Global South. Many young Mennonites were also leaving their rural enclaves and doing service, planting churches, getting education and jobs in larger, diverse population centers, encountering injustices like racial segregation, and movements that overlapped with their peace teachings, such as the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements of the 1960’s.
From these experiences, many Mennonites began to understand that “to extend God’s holistic peace” was about more than non-participation in war, but also about living, working, witnessing and growing toward “God’s holistic peace” anywhere and everywhere “God’s holistic peace” was under assault.
In smaller groups we read about “God’s holistic peace” in Isaiah 58: 1-12 Micah 6:6-8 and Isaiah 9:2a-7
In response to a question as to whether or not it seems like evil and violence can do so much more in this world to undo peace and justice than vice versa (many of us could identify with that feeling), we discussed where and how we find hope and help to continue living and witnessing to “God’s holistic peace.” For some, it was gathering with believers at church and elsewhere, doing the little we can (“I will not let the big things I cannot do keep me from doing the little things that I can do”), our lives of prayer and devotion, etc.
Speaking personally, I keep some freshwater clam shells on a shelf in my office. They come from the Maumee River, in northwest Ohio. Freshwater clams are among the first living things to die off as water becomes polluted. As pollution worsens, carp and bullhead are among the last to give up the ghost. In my youth, no freshwater clams would have been found the whole length of the Maumee River, from Fort Wayne to Toledo, Ohio, it was that badly contaminated. But as Lake Erie became a national disgrace and we, living along it, became a national laughing stock, efforts began to clean things up. Eventually we began to find even clams again in the river. The shells in my office remind me that, by the grace of God, life, love, health and goodness are always there, awaiting opportunities to assert themselves, doing so even in the wake of the worst evil and devastation.
That led to another question: What should a peace church, like the Mennonites, do about members who take up uniforms and weapons in wartime?
We’ll get to that question next Sunday (November 4)